One of the highlights of each year for me is taking part in a camp meeting which my great-grandparents began attending in the early 1900s in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. We still live very close to the place where they settled more than a century ago, and the trip that used to take them a few days in a wagon now takes us about three hours in a nicely air-conditioned vehicle. Part of the difference in the travel time now is obviously the faster vehicles we have in which to travel, but those vehicles wouldn't be of any use to us if it were not for the other major difference: roads. Life as it was a century ago without today's ease of transportation is difficult to imagine. I'll never know the names of the people who built the good roads through the mountains between here and our campground, but I'm very thankful that they did.
That image of preparing a road through difficult terrain is how each of the four gospels describes the work of one of the central characters of Advent: John the Baptist:
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:2b-6)
In reading these words that the gospel writers chose to describe John, it should again be obvious to us that in order to understand John the Baptist and what he helps us to learn about Jesus, we have to get to know the story he lived in and see his place within it. Of course, as with Jesus, John lived within the story of ancient Israel. Also alike to Jesus, the writers of the gospels found in Isaiah help in understanding who John was and what he did.
Luke's quotation of Isaiah above comes from the first passage in Isaiah's second major section, chapters 40-55. Chapters 1-39 are sometimes referred to as Isaiah's "book of judgment," because it is full of warnings about the devastation that was coming to Israel if they continued to depart from God's commands. Chapter 40 begins a section sometimes called Isaiah's "book of comfort," because it comes to Israel after that devastation had come through their exile to Babylon and is full of promises of redemption and God's deliverance. This powerful section begins with these words:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God..." (Isaiah 40:1-3)
The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple left the people of Judah with the sense that not only had God left the Temple and Jerusalem, but that God had abandoned them, and in their suffering, they were desperate for him to return and restore them. As we have seen already this week, this hope centered on the dream that their true King would emerge. He would come and deliver them from their oppressors. He would restore the place where heaven and earth overlapped in the Temple. He would be one who fulfilled the Torah and led the nation to do so as well. Then, Israel could fulfill its place in the world, bringing God's blessing to all nations and all of creation.
But how could all of that happen when God had seemingly abandoned them? The beginning of Isaiah's words of comfort indicated that God was indeed coming back to his people, but like preparing for an ancient king's return to a territory after a long absence, the roads through the mountains needed to be cleared. The way needed to be prepared for the king's arrival.
Around 600 years after the prophecy in Isaiah, Israel was still longing for their true King to come and be their deliverer. Herod was building a Temple, but it wasn't yet truly the place again where heaven and earth overlapped. God had not yet fully returned to them and rescued them from their suffering. They were becoming ever more diligent in scrupulously observing the Torah, but God's new world still seemed a distant reality.
It was during that time that a locust-eating, fur-wearing misfit in the desert began shouting his message that God was indeed about to return as King, and therefore, all of Israel needed to change their direction and prepare accordingly. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each saw this as fitting what Isaiah's first words of comfort had described so long before. God was coming––they needed to prepare the way and be ready.
John's call to repentance is an essential aspect of our Advent waiting which we haven't yet explored. He came saying that God's kingdom was near, meaning that the hope of their centuries of waiting was about to be fulfilled. It was right on the verge of happening. Like the other centuries of followers of the King before us, are urged to live each day realizing we are on the verge of his return. As we remember John's part of the story each Advent, we have to consider what we might do to prepare our own hearts and our world to welcome him when he comes.
A Prayer for the Day:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary.